99th Anniversary of Birkenhead men Mallory and Irvine’s ill-fated Everest ascent

Today (8 June) marks the 99th anniversary of the conclusion of the ill-fated attempt by two Birkenhead men to be the first climbers to successfully reach the peak of Mount Everest.

During their endeavour to be the first to conquer Mount Everest, George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine disappeared somewhere along the daunting northeast ridge of the mountain, ultimately meeting their tragic deaths.

The duo was last seen a mere few hundred meters away from the summit, leaving uncertainty as to whether they had reached their coveted goal before their untimely fate. While Mallory’s remains were discovered in 1999, Irvine’s body and his portable camera have yet to be located.

Sandy Irvine was born in Birkenhead in 1902 and was part of a large family with historian William Fergusson Irvine (1869–1962) and Lilian Davies-Colley (1870–1950) as his parents. Irvine was cousin to journalist and writer Lyn Irvine, as well as with the notable figures of pioneering female surgeon Eleanor Davies Colley and political activist Harriet Shaw Weaver.

He was educated at Birkenhead School and Shrewsbury School, where he showcased an innate aptitude for engineering, effortlessly devising innovative solutions and enhancements for mechanical devices.

During the First World War, he made a noteworthy impact at the War Office by presenting them with designs for a synchronisation gear that would enable machine guns to fire through the propellers of propeller-driven aeroplanes without causing damage to the blades.

Born in 1886 in Mobberley, Cheshire, George Mallory embarked on his educational journey at Winchester College, where a teacher recognized his potential for mountaineering and invited him to join an excursion in the Alps.

It was during this time that Mallory’s innate talent for climbing blossomed. Following his graduation from Magdalene College, Cambridge, he took up a teaching position at Charterhouse School while continuing to refine his climbing abilities in the Alps and the English Lake District.

Mallory later served in the British Army during the First World War and actively participated in the Battle of the Somme. Mallory’s family moved to Birkenhead in 1904 when he was about 18 years old.

Everest Road, near Prenton Park

In the early 1900s, the British made various attempts to reach the North and South Poles, but their efforts proved unsuccessful. The nation’s longing to revive its reputation prompted intense examination and conversations regarding the potential conquest of the “third pole” – accomplishing the first ascent of Mount Everest, the Earth’s highest mountain.

At 8:40 am on 6 June 1924, Mallory and Irvine set off for Camp V at Mount Everest, accompanied by eight porters. They carried modified oxygen apparatus, consisting of two cylinders, as well as a day’s worth of food.

Prior to their departure, mountaineer Noel E. Odell took a photograph of them, destined to be the final close-up image captured of the duo while they were still alive.

Later that evening, shortly after 5pm, four of the porters returned from Camp V, delivering a note from Mallory. The message said, “There is no wind here, and things look hopeful.”

At 12:50pm the following day, the mists that had shrouded the mountain suddenly cleared. Odell noted in his diary, “saw M[allory] & I[rvine] on the ridge, nearing base of final pyramid”. He was concerned because Mallory and Irvine seemed to be five hours behind their schedule.

Despite a squall, Odell ventured out with the hope of signalling the two climbers whom he anticipated would be descending at that point. Whistling and shouting, he aimed to guide them back to safety. However, due to the extreme cold, he eventually abandoned his efforts.

The following day, Odell climbed up to around 8200m but could not see any trace of Mallory and Irvine. He laid six blankets in the form of a cross on the snow which was the signal for “No trace can be found, Given up hope, Awaiting orders” to the advanced base camp. 

Mallory Road, looking towards Prenton Park

As a tribute to the fallen climbers who lost their lives on Mount Everest in the 1920s, the members of the expedition constructed a memorial cairn. Mallory and Irvine, in particular, were hailed as national heroes for their courageous endeavours.

In St Paul’s Cathedral, a ceremony took place which was attended by King George V and other dignitaries, as well as the families and friends of the climbers.

Much speculation surrounds the ascent and whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit. How and where exactly the two climbers lost their lives is still unknown. Mallory’s body was found in 1999, but Irvine’s is yet to be located. Irvine was aged just 22, and Mallory 37.

Tranmere Rovers supporters will know that Mallory and Irvine were honoured by their home town for their incredible achievement. Supporters sitting in the main stand, looking over the Borough Road stand will see the rooftops of houses in Mallory Road, Irvine Road, and Everest Road.

Irvine Road, off Borough Road

Mount Everest : Credit: Carsten.nebel – CC BY-SA 3.0
George Mallory : Photographer unknown
Andrew “Sandy” Irvine : Photographer unknown
Montage : Birkenhead News : (L-R) Andrew “Sandy” Irvine and George Mallory
Street signs : www.fotopiaimages.com

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